Turkey announces imminent Syria military operation: Is the threat real?

Turkey announces imminent Syria military operation: Is the threat real?

 Turkey announces imminent Syria military operation: Is the threat real?

Turkey announces Syria operation

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Ankara is planning to launch a new military operation in Syria in an effort to link up two areas already under Turkish control, raising fears of renewed fighting on the Turkey-Syria border.

Speaking following a cabinet meeting on Monday, Erdogan said the operation would aim to resume Turkish efforts to create a 30km (20 mile) “safe zone” along its border with Syria.

“We will soon take new steps regarding the incomplete portions of the project we started on the 30km deep safe zone we established along our southern border,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan did not provide further details but said the operation would begin after Turkey’s military, intelligence and security forces completed their preparations.

“Like I always say, we’ll come down on them suddenly one night. And we must,” Erdogan said on his plane following his Saturday visit to Azerbaijan, according to daily Hurriyet newspaper and other media.

The area targeted by the proposed military operation is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group that includes the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish armed group also known as the YPG.

The area targeted by the proposed military operation is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group that includes the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish armed group also known as the YPG.

Turkey views the YPG as an offshoot of the banned Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a group Turkey considers a “terrorist” organisation. The PKK has waged an armed uprising against Turkey since 1984 and tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict.

In response to Erdogan’s comments, the SDF said that there had been no “strategic change” in northern Syria, and that Turkey was attempting to “undermine stability” in the region.

Turkish forces have launched three major incursions into northern Syria since 2016, taking control of areas along the border in what it says is a bid to secure its frontier from threats from ISIL (ISIS) and the YPG.

Turkey considers the PKK and the YPG to be one and the same. The YPG and its affiliated political party have controlled much of northeastern Syria after the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew in 2012.

“All coalition forces, leading with the U.S., have provided these terror groups a serious amount of weapons, vehicles, tools, ammunition and they continue to do so. The U.S. has given them thousands of trucks,” Erdogan said.

He warned that Turkey wouldn’t need anyone’s permission to fight terror.

“If the U.S. is not fulfilling its duty in combating terror, what will we do? We will take care of ourselves,” he declared.

While acknowledging Turkey’s security concerns, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price has voiced concerns about Turkey’s plans, saying a new offensive could undermine regional stability and put American forces at risk.

Consistent with earlier comments and decisions

The statement is consistent with earlier comments made by Erdogan and his ministers. Erdogan already last year stated that Turkey would soon launch the next Syrian military operation against the PKK. This has been expected to occur at any moment, but for unknown reasons has still not commenced.

What makes the recent announcement more pressing is the correlation with Erdogan’s statements last month regarding the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, something the 30 km buffer zone would be crucial for. Turkey is drafting plans to return one million Syrian refugees to northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in early May, under plans to build housing and provide services in regions held by Turkish-backed forces in the country.

Erdogan said in his remarks that half a million Syrians have settled back in parts of Turkish-controlled Syria.

“We are backing up our strategy with projects to encourage the returns,” he said. “We are preparing a project to realise our one million Syrian brothers’ return.”

Erdogan added that Ankara will implement the project with the local assemblies in 13 regions, including Azaz, Al Bab and Tal Abyad. “All infrastructure projects, from housing to hospitals, everything regarding daily life will be in this project,” he said.

Turkey currently hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees and 1.7 million other foreign nationals. It is also in the grips of a currency crisis.

Last summer saw a spate of communal violence in big cities like Istanbul and Ankara as Syrian businesses and refugees were attacked.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has spearheaded the increasingly hostile anti-Syrian rhetoric. Despite his left-liberal political stance, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has promised to send Syrians back to their country if elected president in 2023.

This adds to the already significant boost that the success of such an operation would give Erdogan in his election campaign next year. Erdogan is therefore waiting for the right moment militarily, as well as politically to commence the operation. But as the next section will show, there may also be an important geopolitical factor that has accelerated preparations.

Is the threat real?

Analysts said Erdogan’s surprise announcement on Monday reflected his belief that the West would not oppose such operations at a time when it needs Ankara’s support for the Nordic countries’ bid to join NATO.

Turkey accuses Sweden and Finland of harbouring people linked to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), internationally recognized as a terrorist organization. Turkey views both groups as a single terrorist entity. Its NATO allies only view the PKK as a terrorist group, not the YPG.  All 30 NATO countries must agree the Nordic states’ application to join. The United States said on Tuesday it was confident that Sweden and Finland could overcome Turkey’s concerns.

Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey, a NATO member for seven decades, would not lift its veto unless its demands were met, echoing recent comments by President Tayyip Erdogan.

Ankara has said Sweden and Finland must halt their support for the PKK and other groups, bar them from organising any events on their territory, extradite those sought by Turkey on terrorism charges, support Ankara’s military and counter-terrorism operations, and lift all arms exports restrictions.

Finland and Sweden have sought to negotiate a solution and other NATO capitals have said they remain confident that the objections raised by Turkey – which has NATO’s second biggest military – can be overcome.

“Are our demands impossible? No. We want them to halt their support for terror,” Cavusoglu told the state-run Anadolu news agency, adding Ankara was aware that some of its demands would require laws to be amended.

Developments on the ground also point to the imminence of an operation. US and Syrian Kurdish officials told Al-Monitor that Turkish threats of intervention to establish a 30-kilometer deep safe zone were being treated as “serious.”

James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Turkey and the Trump Administration’s top Syria envoy, noted that Turkey already controls large swathes of Syrian territory along its border. Connecting those territories to create an expanded “safe zone” in which to dump Syrian refugees would require taking Russian-controlled areas, such as Kobani and Manbij.

In the October 2019 Sochi agreement, Russia agreed to have the Syrian Kurdish forces leave those zones. However, there is “no evidence that they did so or that Russia even tried,” Jeffrey said. “So my question is whether Turkey is dealing with Russia on this. An incursion into areas where Russian forces are does not sound smart,” he told Al-Monitor.

However, PKK sources speculate that both Kobani and Manbij may prove irresistible. Kobani is where the United States and the Syrian Kurds first forged their alliance against IS in a battle that caught the world’s imagination. Manbij is where Washington failed to keep its promise to Ankara to eject Syrian Kurdish-led forces once the city was freed from IS.

Control of both cities would ease Turkey’s plans to connect areas it controls in the Euphrates Shield zone with those that it invaded in October 2019. Wherever Turkey points its guns, said Yusuf, “we have taken all necessary precautions. We are ready to defend ourselves.”

In addition to this, the Russian military has sent fighter jets and helicopters to Qamishli airport in northeastern Syria, Asharq al-Awsat reported on Sunday.

Meanwhile Saturday saw six Russian helicopters surveying the Turkish-Syrian border, Asharq al-Awsat said.

The Syrian regime and Russia have both reinforced their positions in Hasakeh and Qamishli, the Arab outlet cited a SDF military source as saying.

U.S. troops in the area have deployed patrols in the area, it said, and have been listening to locals’ concerns over Turkish operations.

All signs appear to be pointing to the reality of the Turkish threat, as the political, geopolitical and military timing appears to be perfect, it seems clear that the operation will commence in the next months, or maybe even weeks.

Hazem Zahab

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